Create Your Own Rite of Passage, Send Your Son to Kathmandu

The country needs men and women who make room for each other to think, who listen to each other. In the old story, women waited while men acted. In this new story, we can all act together.
11/15/2012 11:48 am ET Updated Jan 15, 2013

Rumor has it that the PIIGS countries (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain) aren't doing so well financially. The rumor is they're waiting for Germany to help them out. What people do in the Scandinavian countries, in Germany, in the Netherlands and of course in England is they work. They get up in the morning and they go to work. And they keep working. They don't stop for a four-hour lunch or a four-hour siesta. They keep on with that working thing until the end of the day.

The other rumor about the PIIGS countries is that they have a higher percentage of boys still living with their mama. Boys who aren't going off to support the family can stay at home indefinitely and have their mother do their laundry and make them pastries.

We all know the economic joke about the two cows as it applies to Italy: "You have two cows. You don't know where they are. You decide to have lunch. A beautiful woman walks by. You invite her to join you. You buy her a glass of wine. Life is good." In the G-rated version, you don't go on to say how the afternoon ends, but there is more wine and eventually off you wander. What cows?

America is coming up close behind in the territory of having boys stay at home. The frontier mentality which drove this country through the Fifties dictated that men were supposed to grow up, get someone pregnant in the back of a Ford or Chevy, get married, get a job, support the family, smoke cigars and watch football.

The days of the John Wayne man -- strong, silent and emotionally unavailable -- are over. We had the Sixties with the flower men, the Seventies with the soft men and the Eighties with the moneyed men.

Welcome to the "me" generation. The me generation girls are graduating from college in record numbers going into the "male professions" of law, finance and medicine, making enough money that they don't need men. The women are running forward in leaps and bounds. Third-wave feminism is all about finding your destiny and following it, not looking backwards -- or right or left much, for that matter.

Where does that leave boys? If women don't need them, the boy-men are left with not much to do. "What are you doing?" I used to ask my son's friends, and they'd answer in typical So Cal fashion, "Nada mucho." That's as good an answer as any for many of today's lost boys. They've never been on a "date." They've never driven to a girl's house, asked her out, met the parents, dressed up or bought her flowers. They never needed to. Girls were available for friendship or sex without asking.

My girlfriends in their thirties are intense, beautiful and successful. And waiting. Waiting for the boyfriends to get off their butts and ask them to marry them. They mostly drifted into these relationships and started living together without much conversation and now, in their early thirties as the clock begins to tick, they're waiting for the boy men to grow up. To act on the world as princes used to act. As superheroes act. Keep waiting, ladies; these boys are playing video games and figuring out who they are. America -- home of the boy-men.

My own son wasn't growing up either. After high school, he signed up for a few community college classes, worked odd jobs and played music in the backyard that my neighbors failed to appreciate. I bought him a one-way ticket to Kathmandu, where he volunteered at an orphanage until his visa ran out and then went to India, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, backpacking and living on $100/month. He's currently backpacking around New Zealand.

Being a man means being able to act in the world. It means being able to stand up for what you want. I have a friend who got married last weekend. I remember the boy who was madly in love with her when I met her ten years ago. She waited for years for him to grow up, get a steady job, stop partying all the time and want a family. He was fun until it wasn't fun any more. In the end, we all like the idea of The Razor's Edge, of Larry Darrell, wandering off in search of truth and beauty. But, there is a time to act on the world, not to be acted upon. America needs heroes.

What I hope for my son is that when he comes back from traveling, he'll understand Cornel West when he says that every one of us must know who we want to be from womb to tomb, to be more than an echo, but a full voice. The country needs men and women who make room for each other to think, who listen to each other. In the old story, women waited while men acted. In this new story, we can all act together. When my son returns from walkabout, I look forward to seeing how he will change himself and the world.